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The Uniqueness of Western Civilization [Hardcover]

Ricardo Duchesne
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

Feb. 1 2011 9004192484 978-9004192485
This extensively researched book argues that the development of a libertarian culture was an indispensable component of the rise of the West. The roots of the West's superior intellectual and artistic creativity should be traced back to the aristocratic warlike culture of Indo-European speakers. Among the many fascinating topics discussed are: the ascendancy of multicultural historians and the degradation of European history; China's ecological endowments and imperial windfalls; military revolutions in Europe 1300-1800; the science and chivalry of Henry the Navigator; Judaism and its contribution to Western rationalism; the cultural richness of Max Weber versus the intellectual poverty of Pomeranz, Wong, Goldstone, Goody, and A.G. Frank; change without progress in the East; Hegel's Phenomenology of the [Western] Spirit; Nietzsche and the education of the Homeric Greeks; Kojeve's master-slave dialectic and the Western state of nature; Christian virtues and German aristocratic expansionism.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Unique View of World History Sept. 6 2011
Format:Hardcover
I found out about this book from the New Books in History podcast, hesitated at the steep price, but was very glad I bought it.

Since the 1990s, a potent revisionist movement has been trying to install a new interpretation of world history. Spearheaded by well-known academics from numerous fields (such as the late Andre Gunder Frank, Jack Goody, Ken Pomeranz, John Hobson, Jack Goldstone, and Ian Morris), the revisionists claim that prior views of the shape of world history are almost all 'Eurocentric.' They strongly disapprove of anyone who might suggest that the West is exceptional or that it blazed a special path in history. They hold that the 'rise of the West' to extraordinary wealth and power was late, lucky, and is probably temporary. Duchesne dubs this movement 'multicultural history.' Because it declares the parity of all cultures and civilizations, its bias is to level down the West by pointing to instances of Western inferiority and backwardness, and by downplaying the disproportionate achievements of the West.

But now Duchesne's profound and wide-ranging 'Uniqueness of Western Civilization' is leading a counter-critique of the revisionist movement. Duchesne outlines the intellectual context out of which this version of revisionism emerges; provides a detailed and devastating critique of the specific claims of the revisionists, particularly concerning early modern Chinese and European economic and scientific development; and offers a bold new explanation of how and why the path of the West diverged so markedly from that of 'the rest.' Each of these three elements is itself a work of interest.

So, what makes the West unique?
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  10 reviews
54 of 56 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars World Historians, Read this Book! Aug. 8 2011
By Jonathan Burack - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I can't predict that this book will be a classic for years to come, but I do think it should be. In recent decades, the field of world history has been relentless in its downgrading of the idea of Western uniqueness in pursuit of a supposed multicultural purity of point of view. In this book, Ricardo Duchesne calls into question much of the key scholarly research seeking to justify this anti-Eurocentric spirit, he also makes it clear just how much we are losing by denying the unique heritage of our Western cultural and intellectual journey. And the "we" in this case is not only the West itself, but all of humanity.

In the book's first half, Duchesne undertakes a vigorous and exhaustive interrogation of the entire gamut of academic world history's current pace-setters (Andre Gunder Frank; Immanuel Wallerstein and world systems theories: Pomeranz-Wong-Goldstone et all on the Great Divergence; Patrick Manning on Big History; Felipe Fernandez-Armesto; John Hobson on the East's influence on the West; Jack Goody, etc.). It is a tour de force challenge to the prevailing academic paradigm in this field. It deals specifically and rigorously with the work of the above mentioned scholars and incorporates and summarizes a huge amount of the research of many others who in various ways challenge the paradigm - David Landes, Joel Mokyr, Aaron Maddison, Joseph Bryant, Margaret Jacobs, Peer Vries (partially), Edward Grant, Toby Huff, Harold Berman, Victor David Hanson, and a number of others.

Duchesne explores a great many facets of the debate among these scholars, but I will mention just one: the arguments about the "Great Divergence," of the West, or England, from China. It is inescapable from Duchesne's exhaustive review of the counter-evidence that there is an enormous amount of solid research calling into question the contentions of Kenneth Pomeranz, Bin Wong, Jack Goldstone et al that China and Europe were economically similar through the 1700s and that only England's luck at having nearby coal and bonus land resources from its colonies gave it an edge. (Goldstone's view is somewhat different from this but results in the same overall conclusion - that the West was in no way uniquely enabled by its cultural history to launch the industrial age). In my view the evidence Duchesne reviews is pretty conclusive against this theory, but it is clear in any case that those defending the theory simply do not deal with much of this evidence rigorously, if at all.

I do not think anyone will be able intelligently to defend or criticize the prevailing paradigm any more without grappling with Duchesne's thorough analysis. He comes down solidly on the side of the critics of the current paradigm, but he deals honestly and rigorously with the ideas of those he disputes - plus he gives all of them plenty of credit for advancing the field as they have in many ways.

Duchesne devotes the second part of his book mainly to his own theory about the uniqueness of Western civilization. That theory is definitely not a mindless Eurocentric celebration of the West. It is much more of an acquired-taste/hard-liquor take on Western uniqueness - stressing as it does the role of a uniquely aggressive, restless, aristocratic-warrior derived individualism, which Duchesne traces back to the Indo-European horse-riding nomads of the Pontic steppes. It is this combination of qualities he sees as forming the matrix within which the West's rationalism, science, philosophy, art and literature, as well as its industrial drive and dynamism, war-fighting proclivity, and imperialism evolved. I happen to find his take intriguing, bracing and clarifying, I admit. But even if you don't, you cannot expect to understand the debate at the very heart of this field without finding out what Duchesne's take is and grappling with it. Aside from his case for "uniqueness," which will excite opposition I am sure, his stress on culture and intellectual life, ideas, over the current sociological and economic emphasis is in my opinion long overdue.

(By the way, one of the ironies in Duchesne's analysis is his view that the multicultural critique of "Eurocentrism" is itself as Western as can be, a manifestation of a unique "negativity" inherent in the dynamics of Western culture, with its constant and restless curiosity about what is just over the horizon, what is unknown and unbounded - or, to put it in more fashionable words, the "Other.")

Duchesne's exploration of Western individualism and rationalism, with extensive discussions of Max Weber, Hegel, Homer, Nietzche, is more speculative than his analysis of research in the first half of the book. For one thing, in anthropological and sociological terms his own insights rest heavily on what is still only indistinctly known about Europe and the Pontic steppes back a good three thousand years BCE or more. Otherwise, they arise out of extensive explorations of the thought of some key philosophers and social theorists, most of whom are not considered relevant to this field, but should be. It will not be easy to convince the unconvinced that Duchesne's speculations in this realm are provable, but his ideas will still clarify the terms of debate even for those who disagree with them.

Unfortunately, the book is idiotically overpriced. I sincerely hope a cheap paperback is being planned, because at this point few will be able to afford the fee. A thorough discussion and debate about this book and its implications is going to be unavoidable if the field is to advance and recover a vitality it is now in danger of losing.
31 of 32 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Unique View of World History Sept. 6 2011
By Martin Hewson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
I found out about this book from the New Books in History podcast, hesitated at the steep price, but was very glad I bought it.

Since the 1990s, a potent revisionist movement has been trying to install a new interpretation of world history. Spearheaded by well-known academics from numerous fields (such as the late Andre Gunder Frank, Jack Goody, Ken Pomeranz, John Hobson, Jack Goldstone, and Ian Morris), the revisionists claim that prior views of the shape of world history are almost all "Eurocentric." They strongly disapprove of anyone who might suggest that the West is exceptional or that it blazed a special path in history. They hold that the "rise of the West" to extraordinary wealth and power was late, lucky, and is probably temporary. Duchesne dubs this movement "multicultural history." Because it declares the parity of all cultures and civilizations, its bias is to level down the West by pointing to instances of Western inferiority and backwardness, and by downplaying the disproportionate achievements of the West.

But now Duchesne's profound and wide-ranging "Uniqueness of Western Civilization" is leading a counter-critique of the revisionist movement. Duchesne outlines the intellectual context out of which this version of revisionism emerges; provides a detailed and devastating critique of the specific claims of the revisionists, particularly concerning early modern Chinese and European economic and scientific development; and offers a bold new explanation of how and why the path of the West diverged so markedly from that of "the rest." Each of these three elements is in itself a work of interest.

So, what makes the West unique? It is partly the singular emergence of democratic culture, including the capacity for self-criticism from which revisionism itself derives. It is partly the rationalization of so many spheres of life, from science to law. It is partly the culture of innovation and widespread competition. These are all classical explanations for the divergence of the West. What Duchesne adds is an emphasis on the "continuous creativity," as he calls it, of the West, and the argument that the creativity of Western civilization derives from a longstanding matrix of aristocratic libertarianism.

This is a long, challenging, and complex work; but it is highly rewarding. The book engages with both empirical and philosophic issues; covers economic, cultural and political history; and spans from prehistory to modernity. Like its subject matter, it is individualistic, contentious, and unique.
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A scholarly review of the study and interpretation of Western Civilization and History June 27 2011
By Jonathan Huntoon - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Richard Duchesne's book examines (the history of) the history of Western Civilization. He examines the economists', the historians', and the philosophers' understanding and arguments throughout this scholarship. Duchesne also examines the arguments made by each scholar-- how they present their case that either the 'West' is dominant or not, has always been dominant or not, and whether their is something unique about Western culture, history or something else that has or has not engendered the Western world we live in today. Duchesne answers in the affirmative in all these cases.

The book is a good overview of Western history as well, and I have found the references to be quite intriguing. It is obvious that a ton of research has gone into this project, and we are rewarded with this synthesis. I have since purchased some of the books he has examined and am enjoying these reads as well. The history of the philosophy on Western civilization is most rewarding, as he contextualizes the writings of Hegel, Weber, Spengler, Nietzsche, and others.

The book is bound well and the paper is good too. The hardcover makes the book a lasting one.

My inspiration for buying the book were two things: my recent travel to China, and the listening of this podcast on the New Books in history website: [...] The podcast will give you a good feel for the tone of the book.

One last note, this is a scholarly book. It is filled with references, citations, etc. This may be an issue for non-scholar types, but I made it through.

Bottom line: get it if you're interested in why the world is the way it is today instead of something else. That's my take anyway.
12 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars This is a unique book... Sept. 29 2011
By Michael Santomauro - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Duchesne proposes that Euro-man's daring, high-risk behavior is fundamental to understanding the uniqueness of the West. He describes the Indo-European founders of the West as heroic warriors striving for individual fame and recognition, often with a "berserker" style of warfare -- i.e., frenzied, foolhardy intensity. Duchesne argues that the goal is to gain fame by social recognition of individual heroic and dangerous exploits. For example:

It was the vigor, boldness, and the acquisitiveness of Germanic war-bands that kept the West alive [after the decline of the Western Roman Empire]. These lads were uncouth and unlettered, much given to quarrelsome rages, but they injected energy, daring, and indeed an uncomplicated and sincere love of freedom, a keen sense of honor and a restless passion for battle, adventure, and life. (p. 465).

Duchesne quotes lines from Beowulf:

As we must all expect to leave
our life on this earth, we must earn some renown,
If we can before death; daring is the thing
for a fighting man to be remembered by. ...
A man must act so
when he means in a fight to frame himself
a long lasting glory; it is not life he thinks of.

Well, he is a Revisionist that makes you think outside the box.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thorough and captivating Aug. 4 2013
By Will Johnston - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Read this if you love history and wonder what made the west different from, and resoundingly more productive of art and freedom and philosophy and material wealth than, other cultures. Told with a sensible deference to the true accomplishments of eastern societies but a brisk rejection of the incoherent "world system" muddle of those academic historians who describe every western success as borrowed from or exploited from another culture. What a breath of fresh air.
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